Several weeks ago, I addressed the Maine Legislature’s Children’s Caucus as a member of the organization Mission Readiness, which advocates for state and federal programs that lead to better outcomes for our kids, reduces crime, strengthens national security, and builds a better workforce. Mission Readiness is an organization of more than 750 retired admirals and generals, 25 of whom are here in Maine, who champion research-supported solutions that help keep kids healthy, well-educated, and out of trouble, so that they can pursue whatever path they want in life, including military service, if they so choose.

Like many of my colleagues, I am concerned about the dire need to prepare our children for their future and that preparation starts in their youngest years. I served more than 36 years in the Army and Maine National Guard, commanding at the company, battalion, and brigade levels. As a father and former middle school coach, I have a personal stake in advocating for programs that help kids be successful in school and give them greater opportunities as adults.

Some might wonder how a crisis-level lack of high-quality, affordable early care and education could impact our national security. The U.S. Department of Defense’s ineligibility rate is strong evidence of the need to do more, earlier.  Unfortunately, 77% of America’s 17- to 24-year-olds are not eligible to serve in the military, if that is their career choice. The reasons for ineligibility include lack of physical fitness, lack of educational attainment, substance abuse, and involvement in serious crime — often drug-related.

Very often people think of our military in terms of the fast movers and high-tech systems:  the F-35 Lightning 2 fighter jets, ships like the DDG 51 destroyers, the American M1A2 Abrams tanks and other amazing state-of-the-art technologies. These weapons are essential, but even more essential are the people who stand ready to defend our country and carry out its mission. If 77% of young Americans are ineligible for military service, our nation risks not having qualified people needed to secure our future. This is not just a problem for the military; it impacts all career fields, all citizens.

Fortunately, we can address these disqualifiers with early intervention and support. A child’s first five years are fundamental to the success or failure that comes afterwards. Young children develop core pre-literacy and pre-math skills, and build the foundations for all later cognitive and social learning. That’s why high-quality child care programs are so important. Research shows that programs like high-quality public pre-K, child care and Head Start can help create a stronger educational foundation, prevent obesity, and reduce behavioral issues. One study of the Perry Preschool Program, found that almost half of the preschool graduates were performing at grade level by the age of 14, compared with just 15 percent of their peers who did not participate in the program. The kids who attended Perry Preschool were also 44% more likely to graduate from high school.

By providing young children with pre-K, high-quality child care and Head Start opportunities for early learning, we can help them become successful students who are more likely to finish school and pursue any career path of their choice.

The Maine Legislature will have several bills this session to increase options for pre-K programs and to further support our critical child care workforce by bringing the average median wage closer to that of other entry-level jobs. These are a sound investment in our future.

At the same time, Maine’s congressional delegation is recognizing the need for federal actions to address this child care crisis. We thank Sen. Susan Collins for her leadership that led to Congress’ commitment to double federal child care funding over five years. Rep. Chellie Pingree has also been a strong advocate for increased federal child care funding. As a result of their work late last year, Congress approved a significant increase in the Child Care Development Block Grant that will provide an additional $5 million a year to this subsidy program. Still, with less than one in eight eligible Maine kids under age 6 able to access a federal child care subsidy, we have won a battle but not the war. There is still more to do.

Members of Mission Readiness want all young people in Maine and across our great nation to grow up to be citizen ready in whatever field they seek — to become our future workforce, our military leaders, our taxpayers, and our community, state and national leaders.

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